Thomas Carlyle Biography
CARLYLE, Thomas (1795–1881). A Scottish man of letters born at Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, Dec. 4, 1795. Educated first at the village school and afterward at Annan, he passed, in 1809, to Edinburgh University, with a view to entering the Scottish church. Here he studied irregularly, but with amazing avidity. The stories which are related of his immense reading are almost fabulous. About the middle of his theological curriculum Carlyle felt wholly disinclined to become a clergyman, and, after a short period spent in teaching at Annan and later at Kirkcaldy, where he formed a lifelong friendship with Edward Irving, he went to Edinburgh and embraced literature as a profession. His first efforts were contributions to Brewster's Encyclopœdia. In 1824 he published a translation of Legendre's Geometry, to which he prefixed an essay on proportion, mathematics having during his college years been a favorite study with him. In 1823–24 appeared in the London Magazine his Life of Schiller, and in 1824 his translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. In 1825 the Life of Schiller was recast and published in a separate form. It was very highly praised; indeed, one can discern in the criticisms of the book a dawning recognition of the genius of Carlyle. The translation of Wilhelm Meister met with a somewhat different fate. De Quincey, in one of his acrid and capricious moods, attacked both Goethe and his translator; while Jeffrey, in the Edinburgh Review, admitting Carlyle to be "a person of talents," treated the book in a slashing manner. It is one of the most excellent translations of a foreign work in the English language. In 1826 Carlyle married Jane Baillie Welsh (see Carlyle, Jane Baillie), a lineal descendant of John Knox, and during the same year appeared his Specimens of German Romance. From 1828 to 1834 he resided at Craigenputtoch, a small estate in Dumfriesshire, belonging to his wife—the "loneliest nook in Britain," as he says himself in a letter to Goethe. Here Carlyle revolved in his mind great questions in philosophy, literature, social life, and politics, to the elucidation of which—after his own singular fashion—he earnestly dedicated his whole life. Here also he continued to write, for various magazines, the splendid series of critical and biographical essays which he had begun two years before. For this work he was admirably equipped. Besides possessing an exact knowledge of the German language, he was also inspired by a conviction that the literature of Germany, in depth, truthfulness, sincerity, and earnestness of purpose, was greatly superior to what was admired and relished at home. He had, moreover, a genius for writing literary portraits. Through him England discovered Germany. One of his most beautiful, eloquent, and solid essays, written at Craigenputtoch, was that on Burns (Edinburgh Review, 1828). It has given the tone to all subsequent criticism of the Scottish poet. But his chef d'œuvre, written on the moorland farm, was Sartor Resartus ("The Tailor Done Over," the title of an old Scottish song). This work, which first appeared in Fraser's Magazine (1833–34), is, like most of Carlyle's later productions, an indescribable mixture of the sublime and the grotesque. It professes to be a history or biography of a certain Herr Teufelsdröckh ("Devil's Dirt"), professor in the University of Weissnichtwo ("Kennaquhair"), and contains the manifold opinions, speculations, inward agonies, and trials of that strange personage—or rather of Carlyle himself. The whole book quivers with tragic pathos, solemn aspiration, or riotous humor. In 1834 Carlyle removed to London, taking a house in Cheyne Row, Chelsea. In 1837 appeared The French Revolution. Nothing can be more gorgeous than the style of this "prose epic." A fiery enthusiasm pervades it, now softened with tenderness and again darkened with grim mockery, making it throughout the most wonderful image of that wild epoch. Carlyle looks on the explosion of national wrath as a work of the divine Nemesis, who "in the fullness of times" destroys with sacred fury the accumulated falsehoods of centuries. To him, therefore, the Revolution is a "truth clad in hell-fire."
During the same year he delivered in London a series of lectures on German literature; in 1838 another series on The History of Literature, or the Successive Periods of European Culture; in 1839, another on The Revolutions of Modern Europe; and a fourth in 1840, on Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. Of these Carlyle prepared only the last for publication (1841). In the meantime he had published Chartism (1839). In 1843 followed Past and Present, which, like its predecessor, showed the deep, anxious, sorrowful interest Carlyle was taking in the actual condition of his countrymen. In 1845 he published what is considered by many his masterpiece, Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, with Elucidations and a Connecting Narrative. The research displayed in this book is marvelous, but the author was nobly rewarded for his toil by the abundant admiration given to his work. In 1850 appeared the Latter-Day Pamphlets, the fiercest, most sardonic, most furious of all his writings. These vehement papers were followed in the next year by the Life of Sterling, calm and tender in tone. For many years Carlyle had been at work on the History of Frederick the Great. The vast undertaking, resulting in 6 vols., was at length carried through (1858–65). In 1865 Carlyle was elected lord rector of Edinburgh University.
The sudden death of Mrs. Carlyle, in 1866, overwhelmed her husband with grief. Henceforth his life became more and more secluded. His work was now done. In 1867 Carlyle visited Mentone, where he composed part of his personal Reminiscences; then returning to London, contributed to Macmillan's Magazine an article entitled "Shooting Niagara," in which he gave his views of democracy. In 1875 appeared the Early Kings of Norway. In 1874 he received the Prussian royal order Pour le Mérite in recognition of his having written the life of Frederick the Great; and in the same year he was offered by Disraeli the Grand Cross of the Bath and a liberal pension, but he declined them both. On Feb. 4, 1881, he died at his house in Chelsea and was buried among his kindred at Ecclefechan. His wife rests beside her father at Haddington. Carlyle appointed James Anthony Froude his literary executor, who, in conforming with the terms of the trust, published Carlyle's Reminiscences (1881); History of First Forty Years of Carlyle's Life (1882); Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle (1883), exhibiting her as an accomplished woman and brilliant letter writer and giving an insight into her moments of unhappiness and jealousy; and History of Carlyle's Life in London (1884). A revulsion of feeling regarding Carlyle’s character followed, the literary world being shocked by the bitterness and spite abounding in these records, and Froude was attacked with great violence for his indiscretion. A curious and not wholly edifying controversy arose as to whether Carlyle's troubled relations with his wife were due to his physical incapacity as a husband; and this topic, as was the case with a like discussion regarding John Ruskin (q.v.), brought forth a swarm of books and monographs. But time has revived the former admiration for Carlyle's genius. In 1882 a statue was erected to his memory on the Chelsea embankment, and in 1895 his house in Cheyne Row was purchased and opened to the public.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. IV (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 557-558.